Armenia – Dilijan, Lake Sevan, Abovyan, Goris, Khndzoresk, Tatev & Yerevan

Visiting Armenia from Republic of Georgia was a no brainer since the two capital cities are connected by cheap public transportation. We originally decided to hop over to Yerevan from Tbilisi and just hang out in the capital city, but after doing a quick search on the highlights of Armenia, we decided to hire a driver to take us around the entire country. Just after crossing the border, we visited a couple monasteries (Haghpat Monastery and the church of Sanahin) in the Debed Canyon before heading to Dilijan (“Switzerland of Armenia’). From there, we visited several more monasteries (Haghartsin & Goshavank monasteries) on our way to Lake Sevan. After seeing the area’s highlights (Sevanavank monastic complex, Hayravank Monastery & Noratus Cemetery), we had a homestay in our driver’s village of Abovyan before visiting the excellent Khor Virap and Noravank monasteries. The Areni-1 cave and Armenian Stonehenge were next on our itinerary before an overnight stay in Goris. From Goris, we made our way back towards Yerevan, stopping to check out the cave city complex of Khndzoresk and ride the world’s longest cable car in Tatev. We had 3 nights in Yerevan and stayed at the excellent Kantar Hostel, the perfect base for us to explore the city. Yerevan definitely impressed, and we really enjoyed our time in the beautiful city. All too quickly, our week getaway in Armenia came to a quick end, so we made our way back to Georgia.

12 April – Our Armenia driver, Gagik, was originally supposed to pick us up in Tbilisi but two days before we were scheduled to depart, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan grew more heated and we got a last minute surprise email that he was refusing to cross the border in Georgia due to “sniper fire” and could we meet him at the Sadakhlo border crossing instead? It was almost a show stopper as now we had to figure out how in the hell to get from Tbilisi to Sadakhlo. The whole reason we were hiring Gagik was for the convenience factor and now we had to deal with trying to crack the code on how to get to a very specific location via marshrutka. Not cool, not cool at all. But thank God for Sofi and Khvicha. They immediately got on their phones and started making furious phone calls throughout their network of friends and coordinated for us to get to Sadakhlo via marshrutka for a mere 5 Lari each. What on earth would we have done without them?

Crossing the border was a fairly simple process. Our passports were heavily scrutinized at the Armenian checkpoint…perhaps the official was looking for evidence of travel to Azerbaijan? In any case, after fruitlessly scanning our passports several times, we were quickly stamped in and pounced upon by several over eager taxi drivers. Gagik was waiting as promised and rescued us from the mob of taxi drivers. The weather had been pleasant in Georgia, but as soon as we crossed into Armenia, we were surrounded by dark clouds. The weather forecast had been for constant rain but we were keeping our fingers crossed that it would improve later in the week. Our first stop in Northern Armenia was to the UNESCO world heritage site of Haghpat Monastery in Debed Canyon. The views from here are supposed to be stunning but the low slung clouds coupled with rain dampened our enthusiasm for this visit. The monastery itself was pretty impressive, with a bell tower, carved khachkars (Armenian cross-stones, carved stele bearing a cross, often with intricate designs), and a scriptorium, which had holes built into the floor to hide scrolls during times of peril. Lars was suckered by a kind old lady to use the bathroom (he thought it was free) but once he exited, she hit him up for some money so he cheekily gave her some Lari coins! From Haghpat, we made our way over to another UNESCO church of Sanahin. With the crap weather, it was impossible to appreciate how pretty the Debed Canyon is…very frustrating that the visibility here was so poor. Sanahin is a 10th century monastery, and its name translates to “This one is older than that one”, referring to nearby Haghpat. There were lots of arches within the church and tombs on the ground, as well as several khachkars. Just down the hill from Sanahin was the Mikoyan Brothers MIG Museum, where one of the first MIGs ever built was on display next to a statue of its inventor.

After Sanahin, Gagik drove us directly to Dilijan (“Switzerland of Armenia’). He seemed keen to be on his way but we were a bit confused because it was only 2 pm and we were unceremoniously dropped off like hot potatoes at the Hotel Minimo (18,000 Dram for 3 including breakfast…definitely super pricey compared to Georgia). We kept insisting on being taken to an ATM machine but Gagik kept telling us we could pay him in US dollars and we were arguing that we needed Dram in order to eat, pay for the hotel, etc. It felt like a back and forth battle before he finally reluctantly agreed to drive us downtown to a nearby ATM with instructions to eat nearby and walk the 2 km trek uphill to Hotel Minimo. Fine by us, but jeez, all 3 of us felt like we had overpaid for a glorified pick up at the border. This was our first impression on Armenia and it was a pretty negative one because it felt like it was bad value. We decided that we needed to have a “come to Jesus” moment with Gagik tomorrow to set the right expectations for all parties concerned. Especially since he had gotten away with suggesting a super late pick up tomorrow of 10:30 am! We hate starting our day off that late because it feels like half the morning has already been wasted.

Our late lunch was at the restaurant co-owned by our hotel, the Cafe Minimo. As we scanned the menu, a disgruntled man asked us if we got suckered into coming to this shithole village as well. He was definitely one unhappy camper and super pissed off he was stuck in rainy Dilijan! We laughed, ordered lunch and decided to make the best of the rest of our afternoon. The only highlight to note in this sleepy town was a walk to Sharambeyan Street, the Dilijan Historic Center which has been well restored to look like it belongs in the Alps. On our return walk up to the hotel, we picked up some cheap alcohol at a supermarket (0.5 liters of vodka for under $2) and we hung out in our massive apartment complex while the rain pummeled down for the remainder of the afternoon. Cost of today’s drive: 34,000 Dram.

13 April – Breakfast of barley and hot dogs…umm, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! Breakfast was interesting…we ate because it was free but it was a unique meal to be sure. Gagik showed up at 10:30 am and Robby immediately had a discussion with him to go over our itinerary and express our displeasure for yesterday’s rather abbreviated schedule. After getting it partially hashed out, we left Dilijan and visited Haghartsin Monastery (recently renovated with funding provided by a Muslim from the UAE). Because of the renovations, the churches at this complex look fairly new even though Haghartsin dates from the 13th century.

Our next stop was to Goshavank Monastery. To be honest, at this point all the monasteries were starting to blend into one another. This one had a fantastic khachkar. Outside the complex there was a Judgment statue and a souvenir shop. From Goshavank, we drove onward to Lake Sevan where we hiked up to Sevanavank monastic complex (up some steep steps, past a bakery). The complex had two intact churches and two ruined churches, and a nice green khachkar in the courtyard. Inside one of the churches, there was an intricately carved khachkar of Jesus which looked amazing in the dim light. Climbing back down to the Lake, the bakery lured us in and we bought some sweet bread which ended up having a weird sweet filling. The stray dogs immediately became friendly…they obviously know that tourists will give them sweet bread if they behave themselves. Lars took a dip in the lake while our guard dog looked on approvingly. He was so well behaved that we felt obligated to give him a nice meal of our leftovers. The weather today was surprisingly good…it didn’t rain at all! We felt lucky considering the weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms for today.

After Sevanavank, we had a quick stop at Hayravank Monastery, where Becky witnessed a chicken slaying. The family then slathered chicken blood on their forehead in the shape of a cross and because she was the witness, Becky got a chicken blood cross smeared on her forehead as well! This monastery had magnificent khachkars overlooking Lake Sevan.

Our last stop of the day was a last minute add of Noratus (Noraduz). Gagik asked for an extra 5,000 Dram to include this sight since we hadn’t negotiated it beforehand and we agreed. The site was not to be missed with its magnificent tombstones and khachkars. It blew all the other khachkars away! An old lady was selling hand knit socks, gloves and hats and Becky felt bad for her since there were literally no other tourists on site. So she bought a hat and to her surprise, the old lady blessed Becky over and over again…2000 Dram will definitely go a long way for her!

Gagik had been kind enough to invite us to stay at his apartment in Abovyan. His wife made a nice dinner of trout, roasted chicken, salad, and a huge range of desserts…yum! We got to play with his well behaved children (Sona and Daniel) and taught them how to count from 1 to 20. The family all slept in the master bedroom and let us sleep on the foldaway couch while Lars crashed on the couch. Our Armenian homestay was a nice surprise and all of us enjoyed the experience. (Today’s drive rate: 40,000)

14 April – Woke up and played with Daniel who was super excited to have company to play with. Gagik’s wife prepared breakfast and we were able to sit down and eat together before the kids had to head off to school and Gagik’s wife had to go to work (nurse). We were ready to go by 9 am, and our first stop of the day was the impressive Khor Virap Monastery. Due to its close proximity to Yerevan, Khor Virap gets crowded with tourists. The background story of this unique monastery is that King Trdat III imprisoned St Gregory the Illuminator for 12 years in a well here. However, the King became afflicted with a strange disease where he sprouted a pig’s nose and ears. All remedies throughout the kingdom failed, so at long last, the King hailed St Gregory from his prison to see if he could assist. Lo and behold, St Greg cured the King of the pig disease and as a result, the King immediately converted to Christianity. Needless to say, we climbed down into the well to check out St Greg’s digs for the long 12 years of imprisonment. Also hiked around Khor Virap for some nice views of the monastery. There were loads of tour groups here…Gagik told us that the South is immensely more popular than the North of Armenia and that was especially evident during this stop.

After Khor Virap, we drove past the Armash Fish Ponds (about 25 km south) on our way to Noravank monastery. It rained heavily upon our arrival, and eventually eased up. Noravank is insanely popular with the large tour groups but due to the rain, we had brief moments where we had the entire site to ourselves. 14th century Surp Astvatsatsin Church is double storied, with a nice carving of Christ, Peter and Paul. The other thing to note here is a tombstone with a half lion/half human form. Noravank definitely impressed, and its easy to see why its so firmly entrenched on every visitors’ itinerary. From Noravank, we head downhill to the Areni-1 cave, where the world’s oldest shoe (3500 BC) was discovered just a few years ago. Officially, the site is closed to causal visitors because it is still undergoing excavations, but for 1000 Dram each, the caretaker led us on a personal tour.

Our last sight of the day is more commonly referred to as the ‘Armenian Stonehenge”, or Zorats Karer (Karahundj). This obscure site near Sisian is an ancient observatory with an astronomical design most evident during solstices and equinoxes (through holes made in massive rocks). The weather took a turn for the worse while we were here, so we didn’t linger too long.

From Zorats Karer, we drove to Goris where we stayed for the night. Robby had found a budget triple room for a mere $18 online ( and Gagik managed to find the Nar Var hotel. However, the owner wanted 18,000 Drams, so Robby just threatened to book it online to secure the cheaper price. Negotiations went back and forth (15,000 Drams…no? OK, 13,000 Drams). Finally, we agreed to settle on about 10,000 Drams. After Gagik took off, the owner explained why the price was so fluid…Gagik had demanded a cut for taking us to this particular hotel and the owner had to shell out 1,000 Drams from the price. We kind of figured that was the case but to have it confirmed put things into perspective. Dinner was at the very forgettable Prince Cafe, which seemed to be the only option in this sleepy town. Our dinner of a whole roasted chicken and fries was incredible and good value at 4000 Drams, but Lars got stuck with shit pizza for 2000 Drams and went to bed extremely disgruntled, ha.

15 April – Gagik was on time at 9 am to start our day. Robby got into a heated discussion with him on why our excursion yesterday was so cheap (34,000) and the one today was so expensive (45,000) considering the distances were exactly the same. Gagik explained that his overnight stay in Goris was approximately 5,000 so we urged Robby to drop it. We didn’t want things between us to get uncomfortable since Gagik was providing a service as promised. From Goris, we drove to Khndzoresk (10 km east of Goris), an area dotted with caves ripe for exploring. An army unit was at the top of the hillside overlooking the caves, and Gagik warned all of us not to point our cameras in their direction because we would be detained or arrested for doing so. The suspension bridge to Khndzoresk was pretty cool…a bit scary when you looked down and could actually see how high up we were! We spent an hour in the rain checking out the caves before the long staircase back up to where Gagik dropped us off. From here, we drove towards Tatev, where we took the world’s longest cable car ride (5.7 km) on the “Wings of Tatev Aerial Tramway” from Halidzor village to Tatev Monastery. A Guinness Book of Records sign proudly showcased this honor, and we had a brief moment of perfect weather for our ride. The scenery was stunning, and we were busy snapping away at the phenomenal vistas. The ride was only 12 minutes long (versus 30 minutes by car up a tortuous road), and it was hands down the coolest way to rock up to a monastery. Tatev Monastery is quite large but it was undergoing renovations, making it hard to take photos. By the time we got ready to leave, it was starting to rain so we had timed our visit perfectly. From Halidzor, Gagik drove us down to Satan’s Bridge (Devil’s bridge), which had been visible from the cable car ride. Here we were supposed to take a dip in the water if we were so inclined. The water was only lukewarm, so we decided not to go for a swim. As we drove towards Yerevan, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun erupted behind clouds, making for a fine afternoon, weather wise. It was late afternoon by the time we pulled up to the best hostel in Yerevan, the excellent Kantar Hostel (6900 Dram each, including an excellent breakfast in an 8 bed dorm). Kantar gets our vote for one of the top 10 hostels we’ve ever stayed at. Clean, central location (perfect for exploring Yerevan on foot), comfortable, super friendly staff, excellent facilities, free tea/coffee 24/7, private lockers, towels, lounge area, and a massive breakfast buffet.

Lars was keen to check out Yerevan’s only brewery so we set out to Republic Square towards Opera Square and onward to the Cascades. There, we found the Beer Academy….good beer and food. Robby ordered lamb chops which were freaking delicious and a bargain to boot…4 chops for $6. Lars didn’t need any incentive to like the Beer Academy even more , but when he found out that he was getting a free draft beer for being the first one to rate the newly debuted ginger beer., he was in 7th heaven. He immediately ordered a custom made Beer Academy t-shirt, Yerevan edition. It was close to midnight by the time we strolled back to the hostel…Yerevan is such a lovely city to behold, especially at night.

16 April – At 8:30, we were the first ones to barge into the kitchen for our free breakfast. None of us was expecting too much, this was a budget hostel after all. We couldn’t have been more surprised…Kantar put on an excellent breakfast spread, from tea/coffee to pastries and an assortment of breads, cheeses, and meat slices, two hot meals, yogurt, caviar, olives, cakes, honey…the works. We ate until we were completely stuffed and were immediately excited to be able to eat here two more times, ha. The kitchen staff was so friendly and nice…two huge thumbs up for Kantar. Gagik was there at 9 am for our pickup. Today was the last day we were using his services and we wanted to end things on a positive note. We had seen the jacked up prices his competitors were charging, so we knew we were getting really good value using him. There were just a lot of growing pains as we suspected we were his first clients. As he later admitted, he learned a shit ton from us as clients and we told him we hoped that he could get more and more customers because lord knows he needs the money. The weather was crap, with rain pouring down. Come on Yerevan sunshine…show yourself! We had only scheduled 4 sights for today (Holy Echmiadzin, Zvartnots Cathedral, Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery), so it was to be an easy half day for Gagik (25,000).

Our first destination of Holy Echmiadzin is a revered destination for Armenian Christians. Unfortunately it was undergoing massive renovations and the museum that houses the spearhead that pierced Jesus was closed, so we didn’t linger too long. The next stop was the ancient cathedral ruins of Zvartnots. Back when it was first built (7th century), it was the tallest structure in the world at a whopping 40 meters in height. The ruins today don’t impress because they’re a bit hard to imagine what the structure looked like originally, but the nearby museum had a scale model as a visual aid. Our next stop felt like it should be in Greece, not Armenia. The Garni Temple is a Hellenic style temple, built as a Parthenon like structure. It really looked out of place in Armenia and was extremely popular with large tour groups. And we saved the best for last. The beautiful Geghard Monastery was pretty impressive with nice carvings in its interior, which felt like Indiana Jones territory. It had been raining all morning long but it eased up just before we left. Great timing for a massive wedding party that visited as we were leaving…the bride must have felt relieved that the rain finally let up since she was dressed in a gorgeous dress with killer heels…what a struggle she had climbing up to the monastery!

For lunch, we offered to treat Gagik to a delicious meal of khoravats (grilled mixed meat served with lavash bread). Our total bill came out to 12000 Dram including drinks for the 4 of us, and we left feeling completely stuffed. Back in Yerevan, we gave Gagik a small tip for his driving services and paid for today’s excursion (30000 Dram), and thanked him for showing us his beautiful country. Even though things between Gagik and us had started off on a sour note, our constant feedback and negotiations had resulted in all of us feeling satisfied that we had booked a tour with him. We definitely think that we were a steep learning curve for Gagik, especially if he wants to survive on providing independent tours in Armenia. All of us wished him all the best and it was nice to leave each other on a high note. It was early afternoon when we got dropped off at Vernissage Market, an open air market selling souvenirs, local handicrafts, traditional dolls, coins, antique irons, and wooden carvings. Back at the hostel, we chilled for a few hours in the comfy lounge room, drinking up all the remaining vodka and cognac. After pre-loading, we went bar hopping: Tom Collins, Cantaloupe Pub (ran out of beer, yes seriously, so we settled for a doo doo shot), and 90s cafe pub which was no longer a pub but a happening dance club. The bouncer hailed from DRC, so we immediately befriended him. Here we danced our butts off…no sleep till 2:30 am. Great evening out in funky Yerevan!

17 April – Grrr! Our clothes stunk of cigarette smoke so we were forced to hand wash before breakfast. Again, the hostel didn’t disappoint with an amazing concoction of spaghetti bolognese for the hot meal. Not a typical breakfast but it was freaking delicious…we ate till our pants were tight and then spent the rest of the day walking it all off. Robby customized a Yerevan sightseeing tour for us in the following order: Blue Mosque, Cascades, War memorial, Genocide Museum. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed being outdoors all day long. The Armenian Genocide Museum is a bit too far out of town to walk to, so we caught a taxi there. First taxi refused to turn on the meter and tried to quote us 1500 Dram, so we demanded he stop the car and we all hopped out. He thought we were bluffing until we hailed another cab. Once he saw that we were negotiating a ride, he started honking his horn and offered to turn on the meter. No way Jose! The second taxi guy was great…turned the meter on immediately and only charged us 600 Dram for the ride. Gotta watch out for those suspect taxi drivers! The Genocide Museum is absolutely a must do if ever in Armenia. It is a horrifically fascinating museum with excellent displays explaining what the Ottoman Empire did to Armenia. Truly evil and despicable. We left shell shocked after two hours of this mesmerizing museum. No one ever talks about the Armenian holocaust. Indeed, Hitler is quoted as saying “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Who indeed. The US didn’t even recognize the Armenian Holocaust until 2010 because it didn’t want to upset Turkey, considered an important ally. We left with disgust and hatred in our hearts…the things that humans can do to each other. It is truly amazing that there is an Armenia for us to visit today considering the Ottoman Empire was extremely methodical and successful in wiping Armenians off the face of the earth (out of 2 million Armenians, 1.5 million were systematically slaughtered under the guise of WWI). Take the time to learn about this period of history…it will leave you in shock and horror.

Our return taxi ride was 1000 Dram, and we asked to be dropped off at Republic square where we scoped out a nearby local restaurant for more grilled meats…yum! All of us have become addicted to Yerevan’s soft serve ice cream cones (200 Dram) so we couldn’t pass it up after our late lunch. Back at the hostel, we took a quick nap before heading back out to the Beer Academy. Lars’ custom made shirt was ready for pickup. Too bad it was freaking horrendous! We giggled out loud and he tried to formulate the words to express his disappointment. The friendly waiter who had coordinated the t-shirt didn’t really understand why Lars wasn’t thrilled…in the end, he ended up with a super pricey (10000 Dram), super ugly souvenir of Beer Academy, Yerevan edition. It was hilarious. Night photos rounded out the rest of our evening and we were back to the hostel by 11 pm.

18 April – Goodbye beautiful Yerevan! We will miss you so much. One of the friendly Kantar staff called to arrange our return trip to Tbilisi (8000 Dram each, pick up at Kilikia bus station) for a Yerevan to Tbilisi shuttle with drop off at Avlabari metro station. She also called a taxi to take us to the bus station (600 Dram). The shuttle was supposed to leave at 10:30 am, but as soon as we showed up and paid, we left 20 minutes earlier than expected. The van drove around the city and picked up 3 more passengers, and with 6 in the van, we zoomed off towards the Republic of Georgia. The border crossing was simple and before we knew it, we were back in Georgia.

Final reflections on Armenia: to truly understand the psyche of Armenia, head directly to the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan. The systematic crimes against humanity by the Ottoman Empire towards the Armenians is truly abhorrent, shocking and despicable. The museum does an excellent job outlining the Young Turks planned annihilation of the Armenian people, taking advantage of WWI to wipe out over 1.5 million Armenians (out of 2 million). Amazingly, some Armenians survived the purge, and even today, the country is struggling to survive. Yerevan looks like a young, hip, trendy and cosmopolitan capital city, but wander away from the capital and see how the people truly live, especially out in the countryside. Jobs are scarce, economies are depressed, and the people are struggling to make do. No doubt about it, Armenians are survivors. They will adapt and overcome, and hope is on the horizon. Just visiting the amazing monasteries and churches throughout the country made us realize how lucky we were that any of the relics, khachkars, and monasteries survived the purge of WWI. The Ottoman Empire was intent on systematically wiping out Christianity from this part of the world and they almost succeeded. We learned a lot from our visit to Armenia and would absolutely recommend others visit if they get a chance. Just don’t expect it to be all sunshine and roses. Armenia is raw and in your face. We will not soon forget it.

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